Balint Csoboz is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tromsø, Norway who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the University of Lille/INSERM, France between June and August 2023, with his trip extended to December 2023 thanks to additional funding from EMBO.

The EACR is supported by Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,500 to enable early-career cancer researchers to gain new skills through a short-term visit to a lab or research group in another country.

You can read about other Travel Fellows and their experiences here.

Name: Balint Csoboz
Job title: Postdoctoral Researcher
Home institute: University of Tromsø, Norway
Host institute:University of Lille/INSERM, France
Dates of visit: June – December 2023
Other funding organisations: EMBO
Research: My project focuses on a set of tiny but dangerous viruses known as polyomaviruses, with a focus on the Merkel cell polyomavirus. This virus can sneak into our cells, remain hidden for a long time, and potentially lead to cancer development in the form of a skin cancer called Merkel Cell Carcinoma. My aim is to unravel how this virus interacts with our cells, focusing on the cooperation between the virus’s proteins and those of our cells. By decoding these interactions, I aim to uncover how this virus can rewire our cells, and perhaps find new ways to stop it.

Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?

I applied for the EACR Travel Fellowship because I believed that my postdoctoral research on the Merkel cell polyomavirus/Merkel Cell Carcinoma could significantly benefit from collaborating with the host laboratory, which is part of a specialised proteomics centre in cancer research. The fellowship presented an excellent opportunity to engage with experts in the host laboratory and leverage international expertise to enhance the impact of my project on the development of cancer therapeutics against virus-induced cancers.

How did you choose the host lab?

We met during a conference with the PI from the host lab and began discussing a potential project together. This eventually led to planning the project details and applying for the travel fellowship. I chose the host lab for my EACR Travel Fellowship due to its exceptional resources and expertise in interactomics-focused proteomics, crucial for advancing my research on the Merkel cell polyomavirus. The lab’s comprehensive facilities and cutting-edge technologies are specifically equipped to facilitate the experiments required for my project. Moreover, the group leader’s extensive international experience and recognised expertise in the field were also strong arguments for selecting the host lab.

Can you summarise the research you did?

My aim was to decipher the protein interaction network of the cancer-causing Merkel Cell Polyomavirus, which is a significant factor in the development of Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. This involved identifying interactions that could both elucidate the mechanism of cancerous transformation by the virus and identify potential targets within the host cell. Describing these interactions aimed to lay the groundwork for therapy against this virus and the highly aggressive cancer it causes.

As a result of the visit, I have managed to gain expertise in large-scale protein interaction detection, and through this, I had the chance to gain a broader understanding of the interaction network of the viral proteins, with a special focus on protein networks required for maintaining the stability of the viral proteins. I have achieved promising results in verifying these interactions. Furthermore, the initial experiments on the targeted disruption of these have shown the potential importance of the findings in vivo.

“The project has yielded a significant number of findings that could serve as a foundation for future investigations”

Was the host institution very different from your own?

As the host laboratory is a part of a larger French national research network, INSERM, this provided a certain framework for the organisation of the laboratories. Through this, I experienced a setup relatively different from my home lab, where all lab spaces are shared as opposed to each person having their own workbench. This approach has proven very effective in the host lab, and I’ve come to learn that it can also be an effective practice. Kudos to the people working at the host lab for their well-organised management of this system, and to the lab managers who ensure its smooth operation.

What were you able to do that you could not have achieved in your home lab?

The mass spectrometry-based technology for large-scale detection of proximal protein-protein interactions was not available at my home university, due to the requirement for both specialised expertise and instrumentation. The fact that the host lab had both of these elements certainly provided me with an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had at home. Additionally, I should stress that the host lab also works within the same field and cancer type. Therefore, they had a deep understanding of the project’s background and had all additional resources available. The combination of these factors created a great opportunity for me to carry out my project.

Balint in the host lab

Have you brought back any specific knowledge or technique that has benefited your home lab?

I have significantly expanded my skills in studying protein-protein interactions, particularly gaining experience in mapping these interactions on a large scale within living cells using mass spectrometry. Specifically, throughout the visit, I have acquired a powerful tool to identify interaction partners for the cancer-causing virus I am working with within its host cells. Such expertise is highly transferable to a wide range of studies across different models. I am confident that I will use it extensively in my future research as an integral component of my skill set.

How has the trip inspired you in your research?

I must say that I was inspired by my colleagues in many ways. They demonstrated the importance of cooperation in our daily work, particularly crucial for someone who is visiting a new to a lab environment. Their support enabled me to make the most of my time efficiently. With their assistance, I found reassurance in the well-organized structure of the host lab, and I was inspired by the collaborative work culture. It was particularly comforting to always find people in the lab who were eager to discuss science.

Did you take part in any interesting local activities?

The local area of Northern France is unique not only in terms of its weather but also in its culture, which stems from its rich history. Throughout its history, this region has experienced incoming influences from several cultures. It was fascinating to witness how these influences blend into the French environment. For instance, one can observe historical Spanish and Flemish architectural elements in the city, and the thriving local tradition of beer brewing was certainly influenced by the close vicinity to Belgium. The latter continues to flourish in the form of numerous microbreweries, which offer a unique taste of the region.

Balint with colleagues

What was a personal highlight of your trip?

When I started this project, I only had a rough idea, but by the time I left the lab, I had a validated theory. There were moments of excitement when I obtained the first results, indicating that my ideas were on the right track. Although I may have appeared a bit tired after long days in the lab, I was undeniably happy and satisfied to have had the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to my project.

Does your lab plan to do any future collaboration with the host lab?

Yes, absolutely we are planning to work together in the future. The project has yielded a significant number of findings that could serve as a foundation for future investigations, potentially leading to clinical developments against Merkel Cell Carcinoma. I would be happy to collaborate with the host lab to initiate a new study with this objective in mind.

How has this visit been beneficial to your research and your career?

The host laboratory gave me a fantastic opportunity to develop my own project idea. Alongside their technical expertise, the lab provided me with a great amount of encouragement and support to follow my scientific intuition and build a project independently from the ground up. This experience was greatly valuable to me as a young researcher, as the transition to a Principal Investigator (PI) requires capacity for independent research. The cooperation with the host lab has also given me important, state-of-the-art skills that I can incorporate into my future work.

Want to find out more?

If you are interested in applying for the Travel Fellowship scheme, please click here for more information: EACR Travel Fellowships.